Senate to pass unemployment insurance extension but bill could die in the House


Job seekers at a career fair in Dallas. More than 2 million Americans’ long-term unemployment benefits expired in late December. (LM Otero/AP)

The Senate is expected to vote Monday to pass a bipartisan bill that would restore long-term unemployment benefits that were allowed to expire in December. So all the attention now turns to the House, where early indicators say the deal may be dead on arrival.

The Senate voted Thursday to move forward with a bill that would restart federal unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, allowing for retroactive payments to go to more than 2 million Americans whose benefits expired in late December. The bill is expected to be passed by a simple majority Monday.

“We have cleared the last major procedural hurdle,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said at a news conference after the vote. “This represents a bipartisan approach to a critical problem that faces, at this point, about 2.8 million Americans and their families.”

The unemployment extension deal was brokered by Reed and Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) — who represent the two states with the highest levels of unemployment — but is expected to find a difficult path forward in the House.

“Hopefully the House will take it up in its current form,” Heller said. “I’ve told my staff: Get me a meeting with Speaker Boehner and let’s see what we can do to motivate them to move this legislation.”

Under the federal unemployment system, someone who loses a job typically receives unemployment benefits from the state for 26 weeks. But, in 2008, Congress voted to provide additional aid that made checks available for as long as 99 weeks in the hardest-hit states. Last year, lawmakers cut the maximum benefit to 73 weeks. At the end of December, Congress let federal aid lapse altogether.

That cut payments to 1 million people in December, and the ranks of those no longer receiving benefits have been growing by about 72,000 a week, according to the National Employment Law Project, which lobbies on behalf of the jobless.

The Republican House leadership, specifically Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio), has consistently panned the Senate employment bill. Boehner has said previously that he would not bring an unemployment extension bill to the House floor that does not include a job-creation provision.

Aides to top Republican House members have described the timing of the Senate compromise as politically opportunistic.

“If the Senate Democrats really wanted to get this done they would have jammed this through in December,” a GOP leadership aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be frank when discussing the unemployment extension bill’s chances in the House, said last month.

Boehner has also echoed the concerns of the National Association of State Work Force that some of the requirements included in the Senate bill would increase administrative costs and delay implementation of the program.

“We have always said that we’re willing to look at extending emergency unemployment benefits again, if Washington Democrats can come up with a plan that is fiscally responsible, and gets to the root of the problem. . . . There is no evidence that the bill being rammed through the Senate by [Majority] Leader [Harry] Reid meets that test,” Boehner said in a mid-March statement. “Frankly, a better use of the Senate’s time would be taking up and passing the dozens of House-passed jobs bills still awaiting action.”

A survey of House Republicans in states with some of the highest unemployment rates cast even more doubt on the legislation’s chances of making it through the House in its current form.

“Sometimes, temporary assistance is needed for those who are looking determinedly for work but cannot find it,” Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) said in a statement provided to The Washington Post this week. “I would seriously consider any proposal to extend unemployment that comes to the House floor that is fully paid for.” The unemployment rate in Illinois in February was 8.7 percent, two percentage points above the national average.

But while Hultgren wasn’t the only House Republican in a state with a high unemployment rate to say he would consider supporting the bill, the majority of those who responded to The Post’s inquiry were much less committal.

“The congressman believes the Senate bill is unworkable,” said John Byers, a spokesman for Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.). “The congressman prefers a workable bill crafted in a fiscally responsible manner that is coupled with policies that will lower unemployment, create jobs and grow our economy.” The unemployment rate in February in New Jersey was 7.1 percent.

Several Republican aides noted that, in addition to concerns about a lack of job-creation provisions in the bill, Republican members of the House — even those from states with the highest levels of long-term unemployed residents — do not believe this issue resonates with voters back home.

“This just isn’t what we’re hearing about when we’re back in the district,” said an aide to Republican House member in a high-unemployment state, who spoke on the contition of anonymity to discuss the matter freely. “We’re hearing about Obamacare, and certainly about jobs, but not about the need to extend unemployment benefits.”

Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
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